There's More to a Dragon Fly Than Just Good Looks

What dragon flies can teach us about form, function, and even life

Posted Jul 30, 2013

I was working at my desk the other day, looked out the window and saw a dragon fly land on a tree branch. (Of course at the time, I didn’t realize that I had actually seen damselfly, but that’s another story). The insect was blue, elegant and had those gorgeous translucent wings and it got me wondering about dragon flies. Since I’m always curious about fields that are not my own, especially ones that cover unexpectedly beautiful animals or insects or even starfish, I thought learning about dragon flies might yield something interesting. I did a little searching and discovered dragon flies may indeed have something to teach the rest of us.


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First, their flexibility, speed and efficiency are phenomenal in the insect world. When they shift from  being larvae, after several years, to becoming adults, they are fully grown. Two sets of transparent wings allow them to move in six directions: up/down, back and forth and side to side (think super agile helicopter), with grace and speed. In fact, their average flight speed is 10-35mph, and a few of them get up to 60 mph. To translate that into the Tour de France speeds, the average bicyclists go about 35 mph and on the downhill slopes they get up to 60mph. Dragon flies zip along at those speeds on a regular day. 

And they do it more efficiently than mosquitoes or house flies. Those pesky insects have to flap their wings at 600 or 1000 times per minute, whereas the well-designed dragon fly needs just 30 beats per minute to stay afloat and zip along. On top of that, some experts claim they’ve been around 300 million year, which hurts my head just to try and imagine.


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So not only do they have fascinating scientific lives, some people think their qualities can teach humans a few things.  Many cultures find symbolic value (bad and good) in dragon flies. 

First, the bad. In European cultures, starting with the name “dragon” fly, they’ve often been associated with evil. Because horses jumped around when dragon flies sat on their backs, people assumed the insects made the animals crazy (maybe they were just eating parasites off the horses’ backs?). Because of their long needle like bodies, they were viewed as the devil’s tool to sew up mouths of people who cursed or were bad.  Ouch.

But I prefer to think of the good symbolism that dragon flies might convey. 

Because they spend so little time, relatively, as adults, some might say they have to make the most of the time they have.  Could they remind us of the need to really “live in the moment,”with grace and efficiency? In some Asian cultures, they are revered for their power and agility,which make good sense to me, given their design. I like the idea of power in that wispy looking design, which some of the best designed products seem to emulate—form and function.

So perhaps we can learn from these insects that have been around for so long and yet have such short lives as adults. Next time you see one, take a good look, and think about what we might learn from their design, their speed, and their beauty. Or, just enjoy them, which might be even better.